Have public relations and public affairs become the same? Asks Tim Connolly

It was a particularly arid afternoon on the second floor, and tempers were frayed. Emails had been sent, colleagues were unhappy, and fingers were being pointed.

“ … To be frank, this is why we shouldn’t mix the teams. People don’t understand each other and things get lost. We can’t expect the same people to be selling something in to the trades and be leading on the nitty-gritty too …” That was a senior, ‘old-school’ colleague, just back in the office at around 3.00pm. He had the contented look of a man who had just been lunched by public affairs guru Peter Bingle.

“Mmm” I said, trying to sound ambivalent.

But I and anyone listening had understood his meaning: the ‘nitty-gritty’ was the public affairs part of the brief. Anyone selling anything in to the trades was simply a different sort of animal from anyone who might be found loitering in Central Lobby on a Tuesday morning.

Does that particular line of snobbery sound familiar?

Personally, I have never found it particularly helpful to spend too much time wondering whether this or that bit of work for your organisation or your client is best understood as public affairs, PR, corporate communications, crisis communications, etc.

Your boss doesn’t care. The client doesn’t care. The person reading, hearing or looking at your message doesn’t care.

To be sure, different audiences have different rules. Have you ever tried to call a journalist to pitch something when they are on deadline, for example? But despite their different audiences, there isn’t much difference between a genuinely capable PRO and a genuinely capable public affairs or policy professional. Any PRO who is interested in communicating the right message to the right audience needs to be aware of what happens in Westminster and the devolved administrations.

But it is also absolutely true to say that anyone in a public affairs job or policy job who is interested in communicating the right message to the right audience needs to have all the skills and qualities we might traditionally associate with a great PRO.

So what does all this mean for you? Well, it means that thinking in too narrow a way about your professional skillset will only be harmful for your career. While there will always be a role for in-house staff with particular expertise and a role for specialist agencies, it’s becoming ever more vital to be able to offer the whole range of communications disciplines within one team.

You never quite know what flavour of communications work you might find yourself doing in six months’ time – or what opportunity you might be able to seize as a result of broadening your horizons!

Tim Connolly, publisher of Public Affairs Jobs HQ

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